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March 02, 2006

campaign finance and the constitution

Vermont's campaign finance law (with its stringent limits on both political contributions and campaign spending) faced tough questions at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Vermont argued that the limits are necessary to combat corruption--specifically, a pattern of buying access to politicians. But Justice Kennedy said: "Let's assume that some members of the court simply accept the proposition that money buys access ... It's a common-sense conclusion. I tend to think that money does buy access. But what follows from that? ... Isn't the answer that voters can see what's going on and throw the incumbents out?"

One response: We already have access to vast amounts of campaign finance data: more than anyone can take in. Challengers as well as incumbents accept money from interested parties with whom they meet privately. Disclosure doesn't give citizens enough recourse, because both sides in any serious race take money.

There's also a deeper problem, going to the heart of what legitimizes a democracy. Assume that publicly disclosed campaign finance reports influence some voters. Then incumbents face pressure not to appear to do favors for their own donors. But they must also raise money, so they face pressure to do what potential donors want. At the very least, those politicians whose genuine views align with the interests of big donors have an advantage in elections. "Pluralist" political scientists have long argued that money doesn't simply purchase political influence; the market is more complicated. Donors have influence on politicians, but politicians have a choice about their donors; and voters and membership groups also make decisions. Multivariate models tend to show that campaign money itself has a small impact, once you control for other factors, such as candidates' ideologies and constituents.

But the "pluralist" view of politics is fundamentally flawed. It legitimizes pressure from moneyed interest groups as long as other pressures counteract it. But money should have no impact at all; it's an illegitimate form of political power, even if it isn't decisive. Moreover, voters shouldn't have to rely on elaborate models to prove that money does not actually cause legislative responses, even though lobbyists who give money seem to get better legislation. It is unreasonable to expect people to trust a market-like system of politics when the fundamental ethic of democracy is not the ethic of a market. A representative democracy isn't legitimate when various interest groups and voters are in equilibrium and no one is able to purchase excessive influence. It is legitimate when the arguments that legislators make in public are their actual reasons, and financial pressure is absent.

(I made this case at more length in a 1997 article, which later expanded into a chapter of my book on the New Progressive Era. See also this post, where I emphasize the inequality caused by campaign donations. Incidentally, I do not recommend Vermont's approach as the best public policy: stringent contribution limitations can restrict speech and favor incumbents. Public subsidies for campaigning are better.)

Posted by peterlevine at March 2, 2006 07:12 AM


You say: "But money should have no impact at all; it's an illegitimate form of political power, even if it isn't decisive." How in any possible world can you hermetically seal politics from other spheres of influence, like money, fame, etc.? Voltaire's concern that "the best being the enemy of the good" seems appropriate here. In this case, limiting rather than ending the influence of money seems like the entirely appropriate goal.

So, I end up thinking that pluralists are partially right. And it's good thing: tyranny would be worse than what we have. But it also suggests to me that public subsidies aren't really the answer. We don't need to help candidates play the normal tv ad game; we should invest in alternative politics forums (e.g., candidate debates, deliberation day, etc..) that can actively promote deliberative democratic values.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2006 02:38 PM

I think we need to be smart about how we limit (not eliminate) the influence of money. I believe that Vermont's approach is the wrong one, liable to harmful consequences. I agree that there is no hermetic seal between politics and money.

However, in the pluralist model, all forms of influence are morally on par. There is no fundamental distinction between a vote, an argument, and a campaign contribution. The only ideal for a pluralist is equilibrium--all the pressures should balance out.

Either Justice Kennedy is a pluralist, or else he is simply naive about the degree to which voters can punish incumbents for taking campaign contributions.

I disagree with pluralism because I think that money is an evil in democratic politics. We may have to tolerate some of it for lack of a perfect remedy--but we should measure our success in proportion to the influence of votes and arguments versus money. Equilibrium, balance, checks, and limits are not ideals, if money is on one side of the balance and arguments are on the other.

I share your enthusiasm for "alternative political forums." They actually serve as a campaign subsidy (by giving candidates free means of communication). They also promote helpful forms of communication, such as debates. However, I'm not against also subsidizing broadcast ads and canvassing operations. That's because I think that mobilization as well as deliberation is a legitimate part of politics.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2006 11:13 AM

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